Empowering refugees through education

Priya Sharma

By Priya Sharma

The recent historic Global Refugee Forum (GRF) held from 16 to 18 December 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland represented the first major opportunity to turn the promises of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) into action.

The GRF provided a unique platform for multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral partnerships to mobilise action towards the objectives of the GCR, designed to bring real change to the lives of refugees and the countries and communities that receive them.  It also saw the formal establishment of the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network (GAIN).

GAIN is one of the GCR's proposed specific arrangements for burden and responsibility sharing designed for academics, researchers, institutions, teachers and students to facilitate research, teaching, scholarship opportunities and complement activities of researchers and scholars worldwide.

As the PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education) Ambassador for the School of Business, it was indeed a privilege and an honour to represent Monash University Malaysia and speak about the School of Business' initiatives to bring higher education to refugee youth.

The three-day global gathering set out with six focus areas, but the topic of refugee education took precedence - it remains a crucial issue as refugee children, and youth most often have their education disrupted. Such disruption and a lack of education can disempower those who need an opportunity the most and can lead to extreme poverty for generations. Education is often a life-saving intervention for refugees in general, and it offers them protection and preserves their futures.

Unfortunately, for a large number of refugees, access to higher education is blocked by many barriers. This includes the lack of access to educational programs due to the inability to provide identification documentation, lack of economic resources and lack of recognition of previous educational qualifications, to name a few.

Without basic tertiary qualifications, many young adult refugees are forced to take up menial jobs in the informal sectors exposing them to exploitative labour conditions.

Malaysia, for example, remains a non-signatory country to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and there is an absence of a national legal framework for refugees and asylum-seekers. In terms of education, a lack of such a structure also means an absence of access to education. Refugee children and youth in Malaysia, therefore, obtain education via an informal parallel system. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) there are currently 48 refugees pursuing their further studies.

In light of the above predicament, a coalition of private tertiary institution academics is teaming up with humanitarian actors to find innovative ways to increase access to higher education programs for refugees in Malaysia. One important initiative is a Whitepaper proposal titled "Towards Inclusion of Refugees in Higher Education in Malaysia", proposing to the government to recognise the UNHCR Refugee Card as valid proof of identification to facilitate enrolment into these private tertiary institutions.

Such a strategy may offer several benefits. It provides space and a platform for refugee youth who may need to wait years for resettlement, to learn and gain meaningfully from their time in the country. It further spurs opportunities for constructive interaction and harmonisation between refugees and the local civil society.

When refugee graduates are presented as positive role models within the refugee community, it has the potential to encourage them to engage in productive routes and contribute to society. This reduces their social ostracisation and the risk to engage in illicit activities or radicalisation. It is a powerful agent for sustainable development and when linked to the right to work, turns refugees from financial and social dependents into independent, self-sufficient contributors to society.

It is without a doubt that access to higher education will open new avenues and create opportunities for many. It will also give young refugees the training, knowledge, maturity and experiences they need to become agents of change with the potential to contribute to their host communities, be the voice of their fellow refugees and someday, rebuild their own home countries.